Should Companies Ditch The Office After The Pandemic Is Over?
COVID-19 has helped many companies see the value of operating virtually. Businesses have continued to operate with empty offices while maintaining the same or improved productivity. At the same time, employees found a new mode of working that they love: A mere 4% of workers wish to return to the office five days a week.
These insights bring up some interesting problems for companies to solve once the pandemic passes: Should they keep their office space? If so, how much? If shrinking or changing their real estate footprint is the right move, how can companies strategically go about it?
I’ve led a mostly remote consulting firm for two decades and have been on the frontlines of helping companies permanently adopt remote work. From working with clients in 2020, most are in the process of reevaluating their corporate real estate portfolios and designing what their future workplace will look like and how it will operate. Many of them are considering hybrid options. This is echoed by data from a recent study by CBRE, a global commercial real estate services company, which found that 73% of companies plan to support a hybrid model after the pandemic.
The hybrid set-up combines the best of in-person and remote work. It offers a balanced style of work for employees, which they highly value. They are able to choose from a network of locations to get their work done. This can include a main corporate office, their home, flex space, or even a café – what a report from Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate firm, calls a “Total Workforce Ecosystem.”
By keeping the office as part of this ecosystem, the whole organization can realize the critical benefits of face-to-face time, such as improving collaboration, reinforcing culture and helping employees build stronger relationships.
Soon, most companies will adopt this hybrid approach as more employees demonstrate higher productivity levels while demanding the flexibility such a model brings.
What Role Will the Physical Office Play?
In a hybrid model, the physical office still plays a critical role. “The office isn’t going away,” says Michelle Hay, chief human resources officer at Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate firm. “There is a purpose for ‘place.’ Companies will become more intentional about using the space. They will use it for the 3 C’s: connection, collaboration, and career development.”
This means that instead of ditching their office space, most companies pursuing a hybrid model will be adjusting their real estate portfolio and redesigning their physical footprint to achieve these goals:
Design more ‘We’ space and less ’Me’ space. According to a CBRE presentation on its recent The Future of the Office Survey, prior to the pandemic, the legacy workplace design of favoring dedicated individual workspace was common. In a hybrid model, workplace design instead promotes sharing and integrates both collaboration space and individual space. By decreasing ‘Me’ space and increasing ‘We’ space, companies will encourage greater team collaboration, socializing and connection.
Design the office to be a destination. Once COVID-19 passes and office health and safety concerns fall away, companies will approach redesigning their space through a hospitality lens. They’ll want to make their office a destination that employees are excited about coming to, with attractive perks and spaces designed for both deep thinking and collaborative work. The goal should be to take care of employees’ professional and personal needs – including the deep need we all have for personal connection.
Optimize real estate portfolios. Corporate real estate portfolios will look different going forward. Companies switching to a hybrid model will likely change how much space they need, where it will be located and how it will be configured. For example, a company with operations in a large city may reduce and redesign its urban corporate office space and add smaller suburban satellite offices to make it easier for employees to access with less commute time. Shedding some of their urban footprint does not necessarily mean companies will spend less money on real estate – funds they save on quantity will likely be redirected toward improving the quality of their spaces.
Design space to reinforce culture. In a hybrid model, space becomes an essential tool for reflecting and reinforcing culture. Julie Whelan, global head of occupier research at CBRE, says, “A company’s office should act as a physical beacon that displays what the culture is to anyone who passes through its doors, whether that be clients, employees or prospective talent.”
Although many organizations are waiting to make long-term real estate decisions until there is more certainty in the pandemic recovery, they’re beginning to plan for a hybrid working environment. Recognizing that this is the model of the future that offers the best of remote and in-person work, companies are getting a head-start on thinking through how to optimize their people, processes, policies, technology, and physical workspace to fit this new model.